Book Review – The Man Who Died Laughing

  • Title: The Man Who Died Laughing
  • Author: Tarquin Hall
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/10/2019

**Spoiler Alert** Set in post-colonial India, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing features a private detective named Vish Puri and his friends and employees. One of the things I didn’t like about the book though is Vish’s employees don’t have real names – they have titles based on what they do. For example, his driver is called, “Handbrake”, his tea boy, “Door Stop”, his undercover operative is “Facecream” and his assistant operative is “Tubelight”. I really dislike this kind of laziness on the part of the writer – at least give your characters names. And if the author thought the reader wouldn’t be able to handle the “exotic Indian names” that’s extremely patronizing.

The story begins with Dr. Suresh Jha taking his early morning walk in a private, upper-class New Delhi neighborhood. He reaches the Laughing Club, a semi-spiritual group that practices morning laughter as a way of relaxing and even seeing the lighter side of life. The group is outside. Dr. Jha joins the group. But after a round or two of laughter, there is a flash of smoke, the members seem frozen in their tracks and the Hindu goddess Kali appears. After this remarkable occurrence, Dr. Jhu is found dead on the ground, stabbed.

Vish Puri had been a friend of Dr. Jhu, a famous debunker of spiritualism, and India “magic” and miracles. Although Vish didn’t agree with everything the “logical” Dr. Jhu claimed (Vish was Hindu) they were still friends, so Vish immediately becomes involved in the investigation. Dr. Jhu had been investigating Maharaj Swami a famous spiritualist who ran an ashram on the Ganges in the city of Haridwar. Dr. Jhu was trying to debunk Swami’s levitation act and communication with spirits and other spiritual “miracles”. He was also trying to get someone from the police to investigate the death of a teenaged girl at Swami’s ashram.

Vish Puri and his friends investigate – interviewing the police, friends of Dr. Jhu, and even India magicians to learn more about how tricks are done. Facecream is sent undercover to the ashram, where she is drugged, sees a “vision”, and is brought for a private audience with Swami. She talks with the dead girl’s roommates at the ashram and learns more about the suspicious death. Eventually, she searches the underground tunnels and office of Swami and finds evidence of how the ghostly vision is created on stage (they really do it with mirrors) and evidence of impropriety between Swami and the young women at the ashram. She’s unfortunately caught but then rescued by Tubelight and company.

Meanwhile, Vish eventually figures out that Dr. Jhu had faked his death and was planning on revealing how it was done on national Indian television. He was hoping such a grand gesture would make strides for logic over spiritualism in India. But as Vish goes to the place where Dr. Jhu is hiding out, he hears sounds of a fight and gunshots. By the time he, his crew, and the police get inside both Dr. Jhu and his partner have been murdered – for real this time.

However, the case against Swami – including how he drugged visitors to his ashram, and the sexual improprieties against young women come to light and he is arrested. He is also involved in “creative accounting”.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing was a different book – but I found the broken English of the main characters a poor choice. I also didn’t like the job descriptions for names. There’s a great impression of what life in the largest city in India is like. However, the book also has a condescending, patronizing, imperial side to it – as if the British author suggested India wasn’t capable of self-rule after the British left. For the most part, politics are left alone – yet bribes, corruption, and graft are common. One of Vish’s clients even has to pay a bribe to get his children into a good school. Yet, despite their lack of names, the characters are interesting. I liked the short internal case of Vish’s wife and mother-in-law solving, by themselves, the robbery of their “kitty party” (a sort of women’s group with guest speakers and monthly lotto). This book would have been improved greatly if it had been written more from a genuine Indian point of view rather than a condescending British one. Thus I can only give it the so-so rating of 3 out of 5 stars, and not wholeheartedly recommend it. I will say that if you keep in mind the author’s obvious prejudices it’s not completely horrible.

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